Kern, a retired Air Force colonel and former Lockheed Martin executive, joined ACS in 2011 after serving as Director of Network Security Deployment in NPPD at the Department of Homeland Security.
In this conversation with ExecutiveBiz, Kern discussed ACS’ approach to research and development, The SI Organization‘s acquisition of ACS and his own background with the SI during his Air Force career. He also offers advice for other leaders that transition between the public and private sectors.
ExecutiveBiz: Introduce our audience to your role and your responsibilities at Applied Communication Sciences.
Mike Kern: I’m the Vice President for Washington Operations and Business Development at Applied Communication Sciences, now part of the SI. We have local facilities near Baltimore at BWTech at UMBC, Aberdeen and in Arlington. Our local presence allows us to be responsive to our key customers in the Washington Metro area.
My group’s primary focus is to help our government, defense and intel clients fully appreciate and exploit ACS’s discriminating, advanced technologies, engineering and consulting capabilities.
ExecutiveBiz: What attracted you to the company when you joined in 2011?
Mike Kern: Before transitioning back to Industry, I was privileged to be at DHS starting up the National Cybersecurity Protection System Program. I was attracted to Applied Communication Sciences by the history and heritage of the organization, the technologies that they had developed and the superb quality of the staff there. As a smaller company, ACS provides particular agilities around several vital solutions the nation needs for cyber, network operations, analytics and other mission critical areas that ACS excels at.
The opportunity to be able to help bring these exceptional capabilities into crucial national sectors was quite compelling.
ExecutiveBiz: You mentioned the history of the company, so can you briefly trace the heritage of Applied Communications Sciences back to Bell Labs?
Mike Kern: ACS’s roots reach directly back into Bell Labs. I must say that in joining ACS, it’s been a career highlight to come along side so many of the scientists and engineers who had been key contributors at the Labs. By way of context, when AT&T was broken up in the early ‘80s, a large segment of Bell Laboratories became Bellcore, which later was renamed Telcordia. When Telcordia was purchased last year by Sweden’s LM Ericsson, the research portion of Telcordia was split off into ACS. Earlier this year, ACS was acquired by the SI, which is well regarded for its systems engineering and integration work in the U.S. Intelligence Community, Department of Defense and other federal agencies.
ExecutiveBiz: What do you see as the main draw to being a part of the SI?
Mike Kern: I’ve known the SI since 1979. They are an exceptionally capable, supremely ethical organization that has delivered large-scale, mission-focused systems integration skills on national programs for decades. ACS’s innovation and business growth will be further fueled by the SI’s 40+ year history of exceptional delivery performance. Each company also has a number of offers and best practices that the other can learn from. The composition of the SI and ACS customer portfolios underscores each company’s commitment to remain free from conflicts of interest.
ExecutiveBiz: What are some of the areas Applied Communications Sciences aims to expand into?
Mike Kern: ACS is particularly valued for working large-scale, complex problems requiring deep knowledge of technology and operations. While we used to be viewed as primarily the telecoms experts, we have transitioned in recent years into a number of adjacent verticals that have become critically dependent on communications and information applications that are highly secure, reliable, scalable and mobile. Beyond our government, military and intel base, we have been quite successful in the power utilities, automotive, public transit, banking and avionics sectors, among others.
Areas of ACS expertise that these clients have been drawing on include cyber and systems security, information assurance, network and operations, data analytics, advanced software methodologies, wireless and mobility, application engineering and integration, smart grid, and optical networking and quantum technologies.
ExecutiveBiz: Explain the importance of research and development within your company.
Mike Kern: Over the years, researchers working in the ACS business have been named as inventors on more than 2,000 patents. Those patents are at the forefront of the most relevant network and computational fields. Our research and consulting and engineering activities very much feed off each other. The explicit, forward-looking customer requirements and operational insights we get from our hands-on customer support sharpen our research focus. The research output often allows our consulting practices to leapfrog existing approaches. Typically, this accelerates the cost/benefit and application synergies between newly emerging technologies and their applications. It’s truly a case of one plus one equaling three.
ExecutiveBiz: What role do you see R&D playing within the GovCon market as agencies face budgetary challenges?
Mike Kern: It depends what kind of R&D you’re doing. One of our strengths is in developing distinctive, enduring technologies that increasingly seek to leverage commercial technologies’ features and price points. This is imperative in the new, and likely persistent, world of restrained federal budgets.
Clearly, there is a strong need to be moving a lot of the TRL 6.3, 6.4, 6.5 research efforts into operational mission critical areas as fast as possible. It’s smart for national security as well as business growth as a whole. That’s a role ACS is quite comfortable in delivering on.
ExecutiveBiz: What advice do you have for those who are transitioning between the military, government and the private sector like you have throughout your career?
Mike Kern: After 25 years in the Air Force and retiring as a colonel, I went into industry for about a decade with most of that time being at Lockheed. I went back into government when the Bush Administration brought me into OSD after 9/11. I transitioned to DHS a few years later to set up the National Cybersecurity Protection Program NCPS office, and now I’m back into industry.
The advantage of having that kind of a career is that you really learn both sides of the market along with many different technical and disciplinary areas: research, advanced technology, system development as well as market development and P&L business operations. If you have that type of a career path, you gain a set of experiences that is very helpful when you’re looking at problem sets or situations where you need to know what an individual group, business construct or technology can or cannot do.
You also gain a much more diverse set of relationships and mentors and mentees that you continue to tap – - and contribute to – - throughout your career.
The advice I give people in making a transition between government and industry is: 1) You know more than you think: don’t hesitate to share your knowledge, particularly from your past experiences and organizations – - even if it’s “not the way they do things here,” and 2) You know less than you think: be a keen observer and consistent student of your new environment, on both the technical and the cultural.
In doing that, don’t underestimate the value of deeply understanding how the organization works; formally and informally. In a military organization, you get used to that. You understand the structure, which usually defines people’s roles and missions in a fairly consistent manner. When you go into industry, the true organizational structure and work flows have a lot of subtleties. Job descriptions are fluid, as are reporting and working relationships. It’s best to assume little, if anything.
Finally, realize that knowledge that you have gained in transitioning back and forth is unique. Being able to form productive, innovative relationships within and between government and corporate organizations is a highly valued and very portable skill set.